6 years old and fat!

The Times 23 February 2012

There’s been a panic at our primary school: somebody has been putting the F word about. And so the girls — just 6 and 7 — have been asking us if we think they’re fat. Some have refused to eat sausages on health grounds.

Who can have started it, we’re wondering? A mum moaning about her new year diet? Some lunatic show on CBBC? Or is this a by-product of the education system’s daft dithering over how to teach a healthy diet? The inquest is ongoing. Needless to say, none of the children worrying is fat.

There are a few in the school who look a bit chubby, but what do you expect? This is an inner-city primary: if you believe the statistics, a third of children leave them unhealthily overweight, 25 per cent of them technically obese.

Worrying about our children being fat, or that they’re worrying about being fat, is the head-clutching parental paradox of our times. I’m amazed that more of our kids aren’t obese. They eat an unbelievable amount of sugar, three times as much as their grandparents did. It sneaks in everywhere, because it is the cheapest way to make manufactured food addictive.

And added sugar is becoming unavoidable. It’s in things that you wouldn’t expect. On Shrove Tuesday we tested some pre-cooked frozen pancakes: “You’ll prefer them to home-made”, the company said. We didn’t, of course, though my 7-year-old daughter said she would eat them if stuck, pancake-less, on a desert island.

I had a look at the ingredients — each of Aunt Bessie’s Perfect Pancakes, made from “the simplest ingredients”, had half a teaspoon of sugar in it. Why?

No home pancake recipe puts sugar in the mix. Aunt Bessie’s adds the sugar to capture the kids. Grand old corporations such as Kellogg’s have been peddling excessive sugar to our children for decades. Frosties, Honey Cheerios (from Nestlé) and Coco Pops have three to four teaspoons of sugar in one small serving.

Last time I wrote about this, the Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers informed me that “no proven link” had ever been found between sugar consumption and obesity. But there is an interesting link between cereal manufacturers under pressure over sugar content and empty promises. Kellogg’s made a lot of noise 18 months ago with a promise to lower the sugar content of Coco Pops by 15 per cent. They haven’t — they are still 35 per cent sugar. The reduced-sugar Frosties the company trumpeted a few years back have disappeared from the shelves.

Of course, a parent like me wouldn’t let their children eat such things. Instead we’ll dish up healthy, middle-class stuff: fruit yoghurt (20g of sugar), a glass of orange or apple juice (17g), a fruit smoothie (30g), and a low-fat snack bar (as much as 20g). Add a sweet biscuit or a banana and the child will have eaten more than an adult woman’s guideline daily amount of sugar. You’d have thought all of this is obvious. But people are shockingly ignorant about sugar.

We think, for a start, that “natural” or fruit sugar is better. But fructose may be more fattening than glucose. And we’ve been seduced by “five a day” as a cure-all. Of course we should eat fruit and veg, but it’s bonkers that fruit juice can count as part of it. Growing children need animal fats just as much as they need fruit. What a confusion. To tackle the problem, I’d start with taxing manufacturers per gram of sugar they use.

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